Need A Brainpower Boost? Salute The Sun

By Megan Patiry on February 4, 2014

Many of us are plagued with days when even the strongest cup of Joe fails to provide its welcoming jolt of life. On these occasions, the only thing we seem capable of viewing through our heavy blanket of brain fog is the cozy bed we were forced out of too soon. The good news is, double-shot (and triple-shot, for all you go-hard-or-go-home types) espressos aren’t the only options for waking up your brain and your body, and may not even be the most efficient, when compared to certain exercises.

You may be thinking that the last thing you want to do upon waking is engage in a hardcore exercise routine, but think again. Most of these exercises are low-impact, can be performed at any time during the day and have been proven to not only provide more blood flow to your brain, resulting in greater awareness, but actually boost your brainpower over the course of your life and improve your brain health.

Yoga: Salute to the Sun

Photo by yogicphotos via Flickr.

According to a recent study, a mere 20 minutes of Hatha Yoga practice significantly improved participants’ (a group of female undergraduate students’) speed and accuracy of recall on memory tests, providing them with a heightened ability to retain information and maintain focus.

A common sequence of poses in Hatha Yoga is the Sun Salutation, and consists of various, flowing poses that incorporate partial inversions that direct blood flow to the brain.  This sequence is excellent to perform during those mornings when you need to get your blood flowing without having to leave your apartment or dorm. The video below will guide you through the sun salutation movements:

Traditional Sun Salutation

Also, for all you manly men out there, you’ll never have to question your masculinity while doing yoga again, thanks to the rise of Broga.

Hare Pose

Photo courtesy of

The hare pose, also known as Sanangasana, is another inverted yoga pose with brain-boosting benefits. It’s known to provide maximum extension of the spine, increasing elasticity and increasing the flow of fresh, oxygen-rich blood to the brain, and can be done following the sun salutation.

Feathered Peacock Pose (Pincha Mayurasana)

Photo by David Martinez via The Yoga Journal

The Feathered Peacock Pose is essentially one of the ultimate inversion poses, with advanced versions not requiring the use of a wall. However, since most of us probably aren’t advanced yogis, it would be best to use a wall to rest your feet on while you hold the pose. In addition to drawing blood flow down to the brain, you are also drawing it down to your lungs and working your upper body.

Tai Chi

Photo by Joel Santos Photography via Flickr.

Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art that focuses on slow, meditative movements, has been shown in a study conducted by the University of South Florida to increase brain volume and improve mental activity, and may even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

“In the tai chi group, we saw brain growth of one-half of 1 percent over eight months,” said James Mortimer, lead researcher and USF professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in an interview.

Like yoga, tai chi is a low impact and continuously-flowing exercise requiring heightened mental awareness. Many scientists speculate that this mental engagement may be the reason for their significant impact on the brain.

High-Intensity Interval Training

Photo courtesy of

Commonly referred to as HIITthis type of training is high-impact and involves alternating bouts of high-intensity exercise followed by a rest period, which is repeated for a short duration, typically 20 to 30 minutes, or even as little as 8 to 10 depending on how hard you’re working.  An example would be similar to a Tabata workout (a form of HIIT), where you would perform 20 seconds of all-out intense exercise, followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated for eight rounds.

High-intensity exercise triggers the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a neurotrophic factor that plays an important role in the survival of neurons and synapse plasticity.  In a study involving high-intensity exercise and BDNF, researchers found that, “… vocabulary learning was 20 percent faster after intense physical exercise as compared to the other two conditions. This condition also elicited the strongest increases in BDNF and catecholamine levels.”

The other two conditions within the study were low-impact running and rest, which essentially portrays high-intensity exercise as superior to low-intensity exercise in terms of cognitive improvement and learning performance. However, you may be wondering how this is possible due to the positive studies cited above mentioning the benefits of low-impact exercises on brain power and memory, which are seemingly contradictory; the bottom line is, while high-intensity exercise releases BDNF, low-intensity exercise like weight training releases an insulin like growth factor, which promotes neural survival in ways high-intensity exercise doesn’t.

Brain health seems to be more of a balancing act than a cut-and-dry system, which is why it is recommended to include a mixture of the previous exercises in order to reap optimal brain-boosting effects (just as long as this mixture doesn’t constitute attempting to consume coffee while performing the Feathered Peacock Pose).


Megan is a freelance writer, organic foodie, health activist, and spontaneous traveler. She also has a passion for adventure, hiking, yoga, and paradoxically, chocolate in all its raw, gluten-free forms.

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